The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

FIRST: San Francisco: exploring the nostalgic and the new

Tuesday, 6 November 2018, 11:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

Ann Dingli writes about her stop in San Francisco along her USA roadtrip. Photography by Mark Leonard.

Most people my age - thirty, plus or minus five years - grew up swathed in the subliminal influence of San Francisco. We experienced the eclectic refinery of the Pacific Heights streets via Mrs Doubtfire, upbeat American family life by virtue of Full House and the surrendering of free-spiritedness to the inevitability of life's greater course as per Otis Redding's musings on the dock of the bay. Images of ice-cream-coloured homes and poignantly steep hills rotate through our mind's carousel whenever we think of the Golden State's picturesque peninsula. When my husband and I visited last spring, it was as though we had opened a pop-up book to the implicit image we'd built through social and pop-cultural imagery over time. San Francisco was bigger, brighter and more imbued with San Francisco-ness than we could have predicted.


We were only there for four days, and because of our natural disinclination to ever put in adequate pre-holiday research time, we side-stepped the expected landmarks. We chose a hotel at the edge of the city's Chinatown - the largest outside Asia and the oldest in North America - placing us roughly at the north-easternmost tip of the peninsula. Our position was nestled between the surprisingly un-shiny Financial District and the famously pretty Nob Hill. The area was far enough from the highlights not to be too flashy and near enough not to make us nervous as we walked back to our room at night. San Francisco is known for its steep rental prices - both short and long-term - so we were delighted to have cracked that accommodation nut without burning too big a hole in our pockets. And so, with our belongings firmly planted in one of the city's glorious concrete skyscrapers, we set off to find out what all the historic fuss was about.

First, coffee. San Francisco's various districts are punctuated with bustling cafes, each selling miscellaneous art, aromatic brews and a spirited lifestyle that's busy, but not so much that it knocks the wind out of you. People in coffee shops are friendly - they look up when you sit down, some even smile. Like its coffee, San Francisco is rich with flavoursome notes of diversity. It has the cosmopolitan pace of a European capital with the warm, carefree collective morale of a South American town. Equally, its food reflects this variety, from a salad-vending restaurant in North Beach, all the way across the Civic Centre region to a hip bar-come-restaurant serving modern Jamaican cuisine. Perhaps the most delirious journey to which we subjected our senses was a trip to the Castro district for a long walk through the famously gay streets, followed by a sweet helping of sinful treats at the glorious art-deco ice-cream shop - the Castro Fountain.

We certainly needed all the fuel we could get. San Francisco is big, and radically varied from one geographic pocket to the next. From the vibrant streets of the Castro we moved on to the Mission district, where a history of Spanish and Latino immigrant communities has, to some extent, given way to a sanctuary for hipsters. Remnants of the area's colourful past are sprayed on its walls - alleyways chromatically infused with murals initiated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970s now serve as backdrops to wistful street performances.

In what feels like a world apart, we next took a long walk amongst some of the most expensive real estate in the Bay Area - Pacific Heights. Aside from the pristinely clean streets lined with jubilant foliage, this area is a utopia for architectural zealots. Intimidatingly beautiful Victorian, Mission Revival, Edwardian and Château mansions at times give way to concrete modernist gems, each with an unrelenting view over the misty Golden Gate Bridge. The rippling terrain expectedly adds to the scenic drama, culminating in the dizzying bends of the ultra-photographed Lombard Street, from which, rationally, there was nowhere for us to go but to the most iconic San Francisco site.

We took an unconventional route, accessing the eternally pleasing views of one of the most famous bridges in the world from the windy Baker Beach. The beach afforded us the privilege of uncrowded views and a dreamy juxtaposition of the bright red infrastructure against rowdy sea waves and sand. That night - our last in the city - we washed off the sea breeze and decided to dine local, in what was one of the most joyfully unbridled eating experiences of our lives: a push cart dim sum dinner. Tens of tables surrounded us with eager patrons doting on the carts whizzing by, each packed with swollen, doughy balls of salty deliciousness. We had come full circle, back to Chinatown by way of the scenic docks, charming trams, light-filled museums and great architecture. We had never felt fuller. 

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